MEPs put the breaks on organic-food law

The Parliament has held back its opinion on a new EU regulation on organic production and labelling rules, aimed at buying more time to negotiate on legislative powers and restrict the GMO content of organic products.

The Parliament adopted, on 29 March 2007, an opinion report on ‘Organic production and labelling of organic products’, prepared by the Committee on agriculture and rural development. However, at the request of the rapporteur, French MEP Marie-Hélène Aubert (Greens/EFA) (who referred to the rule 53 of the rules procedure of the Parliment) the plenary did not vote on the amended legislative resolution and the regulation was sent back to the Agricultural committee. The Council needs the Parliament’s amended legislative resolution on the dossier before final adoption.

The reason for referring the regulation back to the Committee is that the Parliament insists on the new regulation being made subject to the co-decision procedure since it covers the production and distribution of processed food in the single market (which comes under co-decision) and not just agricultural products (which comes under the consultation procedure). “Referring the report back to Committee enables the EP to negotiate for co-decision rights with the Commission,” said Aubert.

The key amendments (which are not binding on the Council) of the adopted report propose stricter overall rules on GMOs and ask farmers to “supply evidence that they have taken all necessary steps” to avoid an “adventitious contamination” with GMOs. The Commission is asked to draft up, by January 2008, a framework directive setting out measures to help avoid contaminating the food chain with GMOs and applying the ‘polluter-pays’ principle. 

In addition, the MEPs backed an amendment (324 votes to 282, with 50 abstentions) seeking to reduce the threshold of accidental contamination from 0.9% to 0.1% in the case of organic products. 

“Parliament has proposed a range of amendments, which improve the original proposal and the Commission will take them on board,” promised Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel. 

However, the Commission disagrees with the Parliament’s demand for more details in the regulation – the EU executive wants the the basic rules to be stipulated more clearly and logically. 

The Commission also refuses to extend the scope of the regulation to cover other areas such as textiles, collective catering and cosmetics. “We can’t take all steps in one go, we already extend the current regulation to cover wine and agriculture. Other sectors are in such early stages that regulating them now could hamper their development. We plan to look at these sectors in 2011,” said Boel.

"Organic farming is an important sector with some €13-14 billion turnover and the tendency is increasing. In order to the sector to reach its full potential, it needs an appropriate regulatory framework, and that is what we are trying to do with this new regulation," said Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel. "Following intensive Council and Parliament discussions on the regulation in 2006 some elements that proved to be very sensitive have now completely disappeared from the proposal. These include prohibition on higher claims, the mutual recognition of private standards by inspection bodies and the EU-ORGANIC indication.

"The EP is calling for the legal basis of the proposal to be changed both to provide coherency for EU organics rules (by including restaurants and caterers in the same legislation) and to ensure that the Parliament has a role in defining the crucial 'implementing rules', which will specify authorised substances and what practises can be allowed in organic farming. It is vital that the EP can keep an eye on these important rules to ensure that the high standards of organics in terms of health and sustainable production can be maintained," said Marie-Hélène Aubert (FR, Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance), rapporteur of the Parliament report. 

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) EU Regional Group welcomes the fact that initially proposed restrictions on private logos and standards have been dropped from the proposal, "as they are essential to maintaining a dynamic and expanding organic food and farming sector".  

However, IFOAM adds: "A number of issues still do not reflect the opinion of the whole European organic sector. In particular, Commissioner Fischer Boel's promise to ensure better stakeholder involvement should be formally reflected in the procedures. The sector remains concerned about GMOs, the mandatory use of the EU logo, the inadequate link to the food and feed control regulation (882/2004) and the exclusion of catering and non-food products from the scope of the regulation." 

Environmental NGOs, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been urging MEPs, the Commission and member states to take all necessary measures to prevent genetic contamination of crops and condemn the fact that the new regulation "would allow traces of contamination and contains no measures to stop GM crops contaminating organic farms". 

"People buy organic foods in the confidence that they are 100% GMO-free. Opening the farm gate to GMOs in organic food will be going against consumer choice and accepting that big business can contaminate our food and decide what we eat," said Marco Contiero, senior policy advisor on GMOs at Greenpeace's EU unit.

The NGOs welcome the Parliament's vote, but warn that "the 0.1 % GMO contamination threshold should under no circumstances be used as a bargaining counter in the resolution of this conflict over legislative powers". 

A review of the EU organic production and labeling system was proposed in December 2005 by the Commission to repond to the increase of organic production since the adoption of the present regulation in 1991. The stated aim is to improve clarity for both consumers and farmers. (A Community logo for organic products was created in March 2000.) 

The new regulation aims, for example, to clarify the GMO rules, notably that the general GMO thresholds apply (at least 95% of the final product will have to be organic to be labelled as such) and that GMO products cannot be labelled organic, except those containing up to 0.9% of GMO content through accidental contamination. Imports of organic products would be allowed, as long as they comply with EU standards. 

It would also render compulsory either the EU organic logo or, in its absence, an indication 'EU-ORGANIC', which would impose restrictions on labelling and advertising claims.

The Council agreed on a general approach (general approach means a political agreement pending the European Parliament's opinion) on the dossier in December 2006 (16577/06ADD1ADD2 and ADD3).

This agreement supports the Commission's original proposal to maintain the status quo and current threshold allowing operators to determine the absence of GMOs in food and feed. Austrian, Belgian Checz, Greek, Hungarian and Italian delegations voted against as they consider that this does not guarantee that organic products are GMO-free. 

As to the EU logo, the Council agrees on an obligatory EU logo for products containing at least 95% organic ingredients, but decided (Germany and Lithuania voted against) to allow the EU logo to be accompanied by national and private logos.

  • The German EU Presidency's objective has been to get the regulation adopted by July 2007. As the Parliament did not give its opinion, the adoption will be delayed. 
  • The new regulation is set to take effect on 1 January 2009.

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